Federal Judge Sanctions Portland for Violent Policing

A judge ordered additional training and an investigation into one officer accused of particularly vicious violence.

A demonstrator throws a tear gas canister back at officers during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on July 28, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — A federal judge sanctioned the city for violent protest policing Tuesday, ordering additional training for officers who shoot grenade launchers and an investigation into one officer whose actions at a June 2020 protest formed the basis for the judge to hold the city in contempt of a ruling restricting use of force.

U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez ordered officers who wield the FN303 and 40mm grenade launchers that shoot hard rubber bullets, paint balls and capsules filled with burning pepper powder at protesters to undergo three hours of additional training. Hernandez said grenadiers must demonstrate “the ability to recognize and articulate a threat without speculating and before utilizing less-lethal force.” And he ordered an investigation into the actions of one grenadier whose violence at a June 30, 2020 protest caused Hernandez to hold the city in contempt of an earlier order restricting use of force.

Protesters led by activist group Don’t Shoot PDX filed a proposed class action accusing police of using chemical weapons to suppress their First Amendment rights. Police responded to a summer of racial justice protests “with indiscriminate, unchecked, and unconstitutional violence against protesters,” according to the lawsuit. In particular, the plaintiffs objected to the use of tear gas during the Covid-19 pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez signed a temporary restraining order in June, ordering police to follow their own rules on using “less lethal” munitions and prohibiting their use against people engaged in passive resistance. Hernandez added that police may only use rubber bullets “when the lives or safety of the public or the police are at risk.”

But the protesters behind the lawsuit claimed police immediately violated the restraining order and asked Hernandez to hold the city in contempt of court. At a hearing in October, attorneys for the protesters focused on one night — June 30 — as a single shard reflective of an entire summer of violent policing.

Four days after Hernandez issued his restraining order, police shot multiple protesters with paintballs and rubber bullets, violent acts that Hernandez found to be in contempt of the federal court’s authority. Behind each incident was Officer Brent Taylor, a grenadier who testified that he fired between 40 to 60 rounds that night from his FN303 grenade launcher.

In Tuesday’s ruling, Hernandez stopped short of permanently barring officers like Taylor from protest policing, which was one of the sanctions proposed by the plaintiffs in the case. Instead, Hernandez ordered Internal Affairs or the city auditor’s Internal Police Review to investigate allegations of misconduct levied against Taylor over his actions during a June 30 protest. And Hernandez said Taylor should be removed from crowd management duties until the investigation is complete.

The city had already agreed to remove two officers from crowd management duties in order to avoid a second finding of contempt. Although their names were redacted in court documents, individuals familiar with the case say they are Sergeant Justin Damerville and Officer Craig Lehman. Independent journalist Maranie Staab says she was assaulted by the two officers and was close enough to see their faces and badge numbers. Their names were confirmed by a second person with knowledge of the legal matter.

Hernandez also ordered grenadiers to undergo a nine-hour training that the city already completed in December and must now repeat twice per year, along with an additional three-hour training on permissible use of force at protests.

The city must certify to the court that grenadiers understand the number of consecutive days they can police civil unrest, the requirement to report having shot their grenade launchers and “the ability to recognize and articulate a threat without speculating and before utilizing less-lethal force.”

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